Asahi no Yume, September 10 2014
Sundays and full-moon days mean chanting, drumming and devotional songs from the temple below us. It's lovely, except when the temple above us chimes in with its own amplified program and we want to meditate--then it's more than intrusive.
Nevertheless, we are developing a respect for the temple down on the river road. We enjoy hearing the crowing of the grand rooster who apparently rules the roost there. More than that, we appreciate the abbot's compassion. Some weeks back, we passed a little black puppy, all ears and feet, sitting in a neighbor's driveway. Was he abandoned? We certainly didn't want a dog--not with Nezumi sick. Anyway, did we mention that we really didn't want a dog? Two days later, as we passed the temple in a miserable, dripping rain, we saw the same puppy, bedraggled and looking even scrawnier, in the same place. Before we had time to register the scene, let alone decide what to do, we noticed that the abbot, with an umbrella, was walking purposefully toward the little animal, which he picked up and carried back to the temple. Later, we sent Ashoka with a big bag of puppy chow and some chew toys and learned that the lucky pup was recuperating nicely; he'd been given his shots and was putting on weight.
Last week, an elderly neighbor died after a long illness complicated by diabetes. With no one to arrange for his funeral, everything was done by the temple and the neighbors. Because of Lily, we were able to help by sending down a three-wheeler load of bread and dahl to feed the mourners. To some extent, we're beginning to feel the local community.
The rains still haven't arrived to relieve the drought afflicting much of the country. We in the mountains have been luckier than most. Last week, the temple above us, where two Burmese students are staying, was collecting dry rations and water to take to Anuradhapura. As soon as Ashoka told us about it, we went to Nihal's and bought as many 5-liter bottles as we could get in the three-wheeler and donated them. On the way, we saw a sign announcing that one of the nearby schools did the same thing on September 5. We are pleased that some are stepping forward to help the drought-stricken villages. Right now we have a most optimistic sight from our balcony. The dry, terraced land below has been plowed and flooded, ready for planting rice. It's as happy a sight as the water buffaloes grazing nearby.
We have a sizable troop of monkeys in the neighborhood. Their leader is smart, healthy, stealthy, and large. He gives no warning when he's on patrol, but just appears and grabs! One day, Ken stepped out of the office and found him strolling across the living room floor. Another time, he boldly entered the kitchen and took a package of popcorn from the counter. Back outside, he opened it and spilled it all over the terrace. Right on cue, the rest of the troop appeared and gobbled up every kernel.
These are really healthy looking monkeys, not like the garbage eaters in town. Almost all the females are carrying babies. Besides popcorn, the troop are eating all the fruit in season and the young leaves from our papaya plants. Above our house is a grove of cloves, where, some time ago, Lily noticed a lot of flowers. Now, however, the trees are bare. It seems that every flower has been eaten by the monkeys. So much for a spice crop!
Just the other day, during class on the porch, one of the monks pointed and said, "Monkey!" We turned and saw the leader sitting quietly, enjoying a butterfruit (avocado) which had fallen from the tree on the hill. He didn't actually join the class, but he seemed to be listening intently to the students as they read a Jataka tale aloud. He's totally unintimidated by a group of monks and nuns, but as long as he doesn't cause any trouble, we can coexist. (We've tried to take a photo, but he refuses to pose.)
After her six-week incarceration, with physical restraint, Nezumi is in excellent health and spirits. For the first day, she was reluctant to stray far from the house, but then she climbed almost to the top the starfruit tree, and she hasn't looked back since! She's rediscovered her stuffed mouse toys and plays with them like the kitten she isn't anymore. She still lies about food, though, telling everybody who'll listen that she hasn't had a bite in ages.
There are a lot of birthdays to celebrate in August and September. It begins with Ken's. As we have every year almost as long as we have been here, we celebrated that day by taking breakfast to Vajirarama in Primrose, where we are teaching the novices. On August 18, to celebrate Shehan's tenth birthday, we drove to Bodhirukharama in Kurunegala to offer breakfast, something very special for the monks and novices there--string hoppers, egg curry, coconut gravy with potatoes and garlic, pol sambol, kiribhat (coconut milk rice), fruit salad, and yoghurt. Leaving at four o'clock, there was so little traffic that we practically flew, easily shaving an hour off the usual 2 1/2-hour trip! We noticed one thing, though: Sri Lankan drivers do not understand dimmer switches, which is to say, they don't, as you read on the back of many Indian trucks, "Use dipper at night"!
After breakfast, we offered dahl, pumpkins, onions, 50 kg of rice, and other standard rations, as well as the beautiful paintings of the life of the Buddha from Lal, which Ven. Amilasiri immediately decided needed to hang in the elderly monks ward.
On September 16, we will be celebrating Visakha's birthday with a dana at the house for the Subodharama class, as well as a few other monks and nuns. Then, on September 28, we will take a bus to Kurunegala, not only for dana, but also for a Bodhirukarama clean-up project. This will be in celebration of birthdays for Lily, Mike, and Anoma, Mike's architect. Volunteers include Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims!
The collecting of robes for the Kathina ceremony at Bodhirukarama proceeds apace. Ven. Punnesi brought both robes and slippers from Burma where she went with an elderly sister from her nunnery. The Burmese monks here have collected twenty, Mike has donated two, Amal has pledged ten, and others are promised. We are hoping to collect one hundred robes. Several generous contributions have also come in from various corners of the world. Jinxing is coming from Singapore for the celebration and has offered to pay for the bus. Donations are still welcome.
$1 = 106 yen
Just before we left, our absentee ballots arrived. In the nick of time, to save our sterling record of voting. In one of the long talks with Nancy that added so much to our trip, she remarked that we seemed to be remarkably well-informed about American politics. To that we could only reply that it seemed much easier to keep up with the news outside the US than in. For what it's worth, we are pretty savvy voters.
A week seemed short, but, by limiting ourselves to Kofu, it was perfect. To visit Kansai, a month would have been inadequate. We hadn't seen any of the relatives for fifteen years, but we picked up right where we left off, and it was wonderful.
Madoka met us at the airport, so we hit the ground talking and catching up. She's teaching yoga and meditation. We hope that in the not too distant future, she can come to Kandy and offer some retreats and workshops at Mike's center. She helped us find the bus to Shinjuku and our hotel. We had assumed that the Best Western would have a swimming pool, but the hotel itself was little more than a hole in the wall. Our room was even a smaller hole, only slightly larger than the bed. With Madoka, Cousin Rumiko, and her son Masato there, rummaging for gifts in the suitcases on the bed was impossible. After a few minutes of this claustrophobia, Rumiko and Masato suggested they wait for us in the lobby. That gave us enough breathing space to get ready for dinner.
And what a dinner it was! Masato took us an exclusive restaurant on the top floor of Isetan Department Store. It was one of the most exquisite dining experiences we have ever had. It was a set meal; we never heard any ordering except a brief explanation that we were vegetarian. We lost count of the courses; each beautifully-presented dish was placed in front of each guest. Being vegetarian, ours were slightly different from the others, but every one was a work of art. The delicate serving of yuba was the best we'd ever tasted. For the grand finale, the young waiter, who stood silently during the entire meal at the edge of the private room brought each of us a bowl of ceremonial green tea, properly whisked, turning the bowl three times before setting it down. The bowls, we learned, were made by the owner of the restaurant himself, and they, too, were works of art.
Even more enjoyable than the meal, however, was the opportunity to reconnect with Rumiko and to get to know Masato, who is a psychiatrist. It was a stroke of luck that he was able to join us in Tokyo, for Thursday is his only day off. He is the oldest of Rumiko's four children; all very successful. They are scattered around Japan, and the family can get together only during Golden Week, which is the end of April and beginning of May. She suggested that we return next year to join their reunion. A few year ago, Rumiko had a serious medical problem which persisted for many months. The children were very supportive, and she recovered nicely. Ken's Japanese is still passable, but we would not have been able to communicate so well or to learn much about the family without Madoka's help, for which we are grateful.
We didn't know until just before we left Sri Lanka that Rumiko and Masato would be meeting us in Shinjuku, so there was no time to arrange for Nancy to be there, but, fortunately, Rumiko was able to meet Nancy in Ikebukuro before she and Bits began their organized tour, so that worked out well.
We had chosen Shinjuku because that is whence the train for Kofu leaves, but one does not meet at Shinjuku Station, which is the busiest in all Japan. We arranged for Nancy and Bits to join us at the hotel the next morning. We had time for coffee and good conversation, catching up on the past nine years, at Cafe Renoir, near the hotel. Madoka again joined us and helped negotiate all the luggage onto the platform.
We had carefully chosen the entrance to make sure that the elevator was convenient, and, indeed, it was. We had forgotten, however, how noisy Japanese train platforms are, with innumerable announcements that nobody else seems to notice. It was a LONG platform, but the Azusa Limited Express was a bit delayed, so we had plenty of time. When the train finally arrived, the door was exactly at the position indicated on the platform, so getting on was a piece of cake. The two-hour ride, with only two intermediate stops, was very pleasant. It seemed to take forever to get out of Tokyo. What a dense city! In some ways, it seemed not so different from large chunks of Bangkok as seen from elevated highways, but without the palm trees, of course. Once we got into the countryside, however, the scenery was lush. Nancy was overwhelmed by the bamboo groves and the ricefields, and George (Bits) must have snapped one hundred photos.
We had chosen the Kofu Fujiya Hotel because, being in Yumura Onsen (Hot Spring), it was only a stone's throw from most of the relatives' houses. That made it very convenient, but our room was only slightly larger than the one we had in Tokyo. Nancy's, on the other hand, was a Japanese-style room with tatami and very comfortable. Even Nephew Ed and his wife, Izumi, when they arrived a couple of days later, had a larger room, so it seems that we just lucked out! One would expect a bit more, however, for $250 a night, not to repeat the nonsense about the swimming pool! In Kandy, we have family membership (unlimited access to the pool) at the Queen's (Sri Lanka's oldest hotel) for $40 a year! (We are spoiled!)
|Click the photo to see more photos of Kofu|
The next day, Saturday, Hiroshi and Michiko took us to Shosenkyo, the national park gorge in Yamanashi which was once famous for water crystal. The hour-long walk along the river with its boulders was exhilarating. Hiroshi met us with the car at the waterfall, a fitting climax. On the way back to Kofu, we stopped at the Suntory winery. Nancy had been told that Japanese wine was nothing to write home about, basically generic red and white. After a brief taste, she realized how wrong that was. She bought several bottles to take home, paying more for one than she had ever paid for a bottle anywhere else. We, not drinking wine, filled our shopping bag with an assortment of imported cheeses which we cannot afford in Sri Lanka. Both the gourmet lunch in the attached restaurant and the view of the surrounding countryside were stunning.
That evening Michiko prepared a magnificent tempura meal for us and their entire family--Mayumi, her husband, Shinichi, and two children (Mei, an exuberant three-year old, and Soma, the newborn, just home from the hospital), Atsushi, his wife, Mai, and Junji. Atsushi has been working with Tokyo Electric since he graduated from high school, and Junji is a computer expert and stays in a dormitory near Mt. Fuji. His job has taken him overseas, and he spent more than a year in China. Michiko has her own office where she serves as consultant for the elderly, helping them and their families find the best health care and solutions to problems. It was delightful to be with such a warm and loving family.
Sunday morning brought a real surprise. Many years ago, Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art made a decision to specialize in Jean-Francois Millet. The museum acquired some of his best paintings as well as sketches he had done as studies. Over the years there have been periodic exhibits of his work. This year, being the bicentennial of his birth, the museum mounted a special exhibition spanning his entire lifework, with paintings and sketches collected from around the world. It was a beautiful exhibition, something we never expected to see in Japan. At the entrance, the museum had set up a wine-tasting bar and sale, which Nancy and Bits could not, of course, ignore. They bought more wine. After all, Yamanashi is the grape and fruit center of Japan. While they were busy there, we perused the museum shop and found lots of great gifts.
After the museum, we joined Hiroshi's brother, Kazunori (now Shigenori) and his wife at the family gravesite where a portion of Dad's ashes are buried. That was quite emotional for Nancy; it symbolized the connection to her roots in Japan which she had always felt, but rather abstractly. Michiko tenderly cleaned the graves and arranged fresh flowers. Then, in purely Japanese fashion, she asked Nancy to help pour beer over the stones as an offering to the spirits. As we chanted some Buddhist gathas in front of the tomb, we remembered all the happy times we had with Dad when he visited Japan. Before heading back to Chiba, where he is a veterinarian, Shigenori and his wife treated us to lunch in a soba shop and coffee at the hotel--another satisfying afternoon.
After a short rest at the hotel, we returned to Hiroshi's house for another delicious meal. The highlight of this meal was the rice which Hiroshi grows himself. As a boy, Hiroshi often helped his mother in the vegetable garden, but he admits that he never enjoyed the work. Now, however, not only is he growing scrumptious vegetables, but he is completely responsible for a rice paddy that Michiko inherited. He has learned various techniques from other farmers and has adapted them into a perfect system of alternate draining and flooding the fields. He has learned that storing the rice unhusked also improves the flavor. In any case, his rice, a variety called "asahi no yume" (dream of the rising sun) is the most delicious we have ever tasted. We knew that we were looking forward to Japanese rice, but his rice is extraordinary! We wanted to bring back two kilos, and he prepared a bag for us, but, in the end, our suitcases were too full. Something to remember and look forward to next time!
Monday, Hiroshi took Nancy, Bits, Ed, and Izumi to an alpine village (Heidi), a sunflower field, and a whiskey distillery. That evening, Mamoru (another cousin) and his wife took us to the splendid garden restaurant of the luxurious hotel where the emperor stays when he visits Kofu. Sitting under the majestic trees, we truly felt that we were in the garden of the Imperial Palace. It was a uniquely Japanese experience, with delightful conversation. Mamoru gave us gifts of an assortment of beautiful antique Noh masks, two of which are protecting our house now.
Tuesday, Hiroshi took the two couples on another excursion, this time to Lake Kawaguchi for an unobstructed view of Mount Fuji. (Every afternoon, from the hotel window, we could see the top of the volcano beyond a range of mountains [quite impressive, nonetheless], but that doesn't really count.) They had a lovely time. Mt. Fuji was to be included in Nancy's and Bits' tour, but at that time they would probably by rushed, so this seemed to be better. As it turned out, due to the typhoon, Mt. Fuji was dropped from the tour, so they felt smug in having done it themselves. While they were away, we did some shopping for Nancy--stainless steel thermos flasks, a belt, and nail polish--vegetable seeds for ourselves.
Click the photo to see more photos of Kofu
Wednesday morning, Hiroshi came to the hotel to see us off. It was a tearful parting. Nancy is now very eager to learn Japanese so that she can return and speak with all the family on her own. The ride back to Tokyo was relaxed and allowed us to ponder on how successful the journey had been. It was even more meaningful than Nancy had expected. We also immensely enjoyed it, and we were especially happy to be able to help make it happen.
Back in Shinjuku, we put them into a taxi for Ikebukuro and returned to our hotel. That afternoon, Hiroshi and Hiroko, our friends from Students of the Lotus, arrived from Osaka to spend a few hours with us. Since Hiroshi retired they have visited their daughter and grandchildren in France several times, and they are able to spend time with their younger daughter and her children in Himeji. Hiroko is still involved with her study of Tibetan and Esoteric Buddhism which has often taken her to the Himalayan region. We hope that, in the near future, we four can go on pilgrimage together. That evening, we had a chance to spend time with Madoka alone. She is enjoying her work as yoga and meditation instructor, and also does interpreting from time to time. We reminisced about her parents whom we knew in Kobe and mutual Burmese friends as well. Catching up with her life was a great pleasure. The other person we got in touch with was Bruce--we had some good long talks with him in Nara by phone. The whole week was very happy, but, in some ways, it seems to have been just a dream.
Our book of Buddhist Crossword Puzzles is undergoing its final proofreading. It is a collection of fifty-two puzzles--at one per week, a full year of challenges--for which all the clues are sentences related to Buddhism. Since some of the clues are quotations from rather esoteric sources, we've decided to add an appendix of synonyms, primarily for language learners. Creating the puzzles and finding appropriate photos has been a real pleasure. They are tough, but we think they'll be enjoyable for puzzle afficionados and students of Buddhism and English alike.